Eglantine Dream

Review of a novel by Dhivan Thomas Jones –


Eglantine Dream is an intriguing symbolic fantasy novel, set in a world of denial. The country of the Hens, where the story begins, may remind you a little of Apartheid South Africa or of Indian oppression of dalits - but its level of hypocritical denial goes much further. The despised under-race of the haeras is not exploited so much as totally ignored and denied, apart from the occasional rape, and an unacknowledged trade in intoxicating liquor called mada. The haeras are unintelligibility itself, we are warned quite early on, in an apparent hyperbole that tells us directly about the symbolic function of the haera. They are the unconscious and rejected aspects of our psyches, represented socially and politically in the form of a people.


The Hen Gerald Garposier, on the other hand, is an academic hero, whose virtue is courageous investigation into the haera, even when he meets a stonewall of opposition from colleagues and loses his post. As he finds out more about the haera, gradually developing his academic curiosity into a more open spiritual quest, one is sometimes reminded of a blundering orientalist going native amongst the sadhus. He has to let go of his comfort, find courage, acknowledge grief, and gradually make himself more at home in a world of dirt, physicality, dreams and shamanism. His journey is, for the most part, one I found very convincing. It is clearly based on experience of challenging spiritual development. The novel is worth reading just to experience the dualistic world that Gerald starts off in, and the rewarding progress of his opening up of that world.


This is a highly symbolic and very ambitious novel (and my practice is to use the word ‘ambitious’ as a compliment). It tries to get to the heart of what non-dualism consists in within an imaginative space – so it is hardly surprising if it does not totally succeed in doing this. I greatly admire the novel, at the same time as being rather dissatisfied with it in several ways.


One difficulty I found was with the presentation of the haeras. The main haera character is Kala, who often appears as a kind of mysterious primitive shamanic priestess, initiating Gerald into her underworld. Appropriately enough, Gerald first meets Kala when raping her in a fit of violent disgust and denial against the haeras, but despite this they develop an increasingly close and mutually respectful relationship. This bold piece of plotting works superbly well, but other aspects of the presentation of Kala do not. Kala speaks throughout in a kind of pidgin English, some of which is very hard to understand initially. I felt that she needed to speak her own language – which would need to be translated for us, perhaps – rather than a partially articulate version of the language of her oppressors. Since pidgin develops through social contacts and the Hens hardly even recognise that haeras can talk, it also seemed incredible that the two sides would develop a pidgin language for communication. Psychologically, too, the denied unconscious is opaque to us rather than just poorly articulated.


I found further difficulties with the later development and denouement of the novel. Gerald and his companions undertake a quest across the sea, to the mysterious land of Eglant and the Sleeper’s Tower. Here they first meet people who recognise ‘no Power’ and engage in uncontrolled sex and cannibalism. As they approach the Sleeper’s Tower, the line between dream and reality becomes less and less distinct, until finally, in the heart of the Tower itself, they discover that their existence is, in some sense, a dream and apparently reach for reality.


I was deeply disappointed with this merely metaphysical solution to a symbolic tension that had been so carefully built up, in such a convincing way, through the experience of the characters. All the way through the novel, Gerald has developed morally through stretching his experience and reaching out from his previous assumptions. At the end though, we seem to be given the message that this experience is unreal and we need to abandon it altogether. Though the author takes care never to make his Buddhist standpoint explicit, the influence of traditional Buddhism seems particularly obvious here. ‘Gondolims’ turn out to be bodhisattvas, who have found an escape from the world of experience but chosen to remain in it to help others. At the end the characters seem to be reaching for ‘Awakening’ as the final resolution. This novel only deepened my dissatisfaction with these Buddhist devices as ways of communicating or symbolising spiritual development. In the end, the characters abandon their experience rather than continuing with its imperfections and challenges.


This standpoint appears in the novel in various other ways. The idea of Power, or ‘pao’ is often mentioned, apparently guiding the characters, particularly through Kala’s intuition. This Power also seems to have a moral function, and is absent amongst the cannibals. This episode I found the least convincing in the novel, because completely remote from experience. People do not turn to cannibalism because of a lack of any sense of moral duty, but usually because they believe it is in some sense right or desirable. Morality does not just disappear in human beings because of the absence of a supernatural power, but rather it is part of their basic experience in the first place, and belief in ‘Powers’ if anything is more likely to reduce than develop it.


Much of the novel appears to be telling us about the Middle Way, as Gerald addresses conditions more and more fully by abandoning his limiting assumptions, but without giving up his basic Hen motivations and intellectual outlook. At the end of the book, however, this balance is lost. Whilst for most of the novel Gerald and Kala seem to be learning from each other, at the end it just seems to be Kala’s call – the idealistic sadhus are pronounced right in some ultimate way, the empiricist intellectuals wrong. Gerald is in effect swallowed up by the shamanic world that Kala knew about all along. This seems to me to be a betrayal of everything that is good about Gerald’s world: the scientific spirit, the clarity, the rigour and the coherence. It is the Geralds of this world that relieve suffering and reduce ignorance through deliberate action, however much they need the intuition, spontaneity and physicality of the Kalas to balance their limitations. In the end, the ideal of ‘awakening’, as though from a dream, is not one of balance.


As will now be evident, my basic problem with this novel is that it is Buddhist in rather a traditional way (despite it never explicitly discussing Buddhism), and that for all the imaginative layering, those traditional Buddhist values are very clear. Reading it was thus for me a valuable exercise in recognise even more clearly why I am no longer a Buddhist in this traditional sense. Buddhism’s betrayal of its own insights is illustrated here for me anew, both in the strengths and in the weaknesses of this novel. Gerald and his friends, like the Buddha, set out upon a journey that is extremely well described for us. The problem in both cases lies in conceptions of the destination.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Robert M. Ellis


The novel is available from Lulu on this link, price UK £8.99 or equivalent.

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